I started investigating turmeric about half a year after my diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. I’d just completed the second of a 2-week-on, 1-week off cycle of a new (to me) chemo med, Xeloda (capecitabine). I dutifully swallowed 4 pills in the morning and 4 pills in the evening for 14 days, imagining the tumors in my spine, lymph nodes, liver and brain dissolving away.
Not quite. My oncologist said that some of the tumors had shrunk a bit, and most showed no progression. Encouraging enough to continue taking Xeloda, but why wasn’t I responding quicker?
Turning to google for some infotherapy, I threw in all sorts of keywords – cancer, metastatic, chemo, supplement – as if fumbling around for the right chants with no spellbook to guide my spellcasting.
After clearing my head with episodes of the new season of Orange is the New Black, I switched over to pubmed.gov to probe into turmeric (Curcuma longa). It’s the spice that gives curry its yellow color, and has been used in Asian cooking as well as medicinally for thousands of years.
Of all the supplements that turned up in my google search, turmeric emerged as the clear winner in terms of the sheer amount of research and the benefits attributed to the spice. Numerous studies show that a compound isolated from turmeric, curcumin, has anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative and antibacterial activity. Curcumin also shows promise in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, psoraisis, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and Alzheimer’s (1). But I focused my investigation on research into curcumin’s anti-cancer properties.
I was already familiar with turmeric from my graduate studies in nutrition, but I got cautiously excited when searching for “turmeric Xeloda” or “turmeric capecitabine” turned up three recent studies (2, 3, 4). They all suggested that turmeric sensitizes cancer cells to Xeloda. But while the chemo drug matched my case, only one of the studies used breast cancer cells in their experiments.
Still, I found many studies that reported curcumin’s effectiveness against various breast cancer cell lines both in both petri dishes and mouse/rat models. A review article published last fall, “Recent Advances of Curcumin and its Analogues in Breast Cancer Prevention and Treatment” does a nice job of summarizing all the research and explains the possible mechanisms by which curcumin fights cancer.
Another review article gives the Canadian perspective on curcumin. In Canada, curcumin supplements can claim two statements approved by Health Canada:
1) “Provides antioxidants for the maintenance of good health.”
2) “Used in herbal medicine to help relieve joint inflammation.”
Claims about curcumin’s anti-cancer properties are not yet allowed, however. The authors conclude that “more high-quality human clinical trials designed to study the effect of curcumin on cancer-specific markers are required to validate the benefits currently seen in animal models and cell culture studies.”
With no high-quality human clinical trials in sight, I decided to conduct my own n=1 experiment. But which supplement to take?
The amount of choices that I encountered on Amazon was overwhelming, so I looked back at the research to figure out what form and dose of turmeric is best. I’ll tackle that, as well as some health concerns with turmeric supplementation, in my next posts.